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Teacher education critical missing piece

S Giridhar Nov 5 2017, 1:13 IST

The recently released World Bank study on the status of education calls out the "learning crisis" in stark and clear terms. To people involved in the domain of education, this is a reiteration of what the country has recognised as a most wicked problem for many decades now. Since 2005, the Annual Status of Education (ASER) report, has been calling out the problem every January by showing that more than half the children are unable to read or write or perform simple numerical calculations. Some years ago, two states (Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh) were brave enough to participate in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a worldwide assessment of learning levels of 15-year-old children. The two states finished near the very bottom, just above Kazakhstan.

The fact that the children from disadvantaged socioeconomic conditions in rural India are the worst sufferers in a system that does not offer equitable quality of education is a moral burden each one of us has to bear. At the same time, the fact is, whether rural or urban, private or public school, the quality of education has gone nowhere. A study commissioned by 'Wipro Applying Thought in Schools' to assess the quality of learning in Indian schools showed that our system was in the vice-like grip of rote learning. Thus, children in elite private schools fared no better when it came to answering questions that assessed conceptual understanding, analytical and higher order thinking.

Often, there has been the urge to suggest how accountability, incentives, the use of technology in schools and other 'efficiency-related' actions would provide the breakthrough. It is good to note that the World Bank report recognises the centrality of the teacher, instead, and the need to invest in her professional preparedness. To those working on the ground for many years with rural government schools, this acknowledgement of the criticality of teacher education would perhaps be the most significant aspect of the report.

Not for nothing did the late JP Naik, doyen of Indian education in the 20th century, title his seminal work on Indian Education 'Equality, Quality, Quantity: the elusive triangle of Indian education'. Through some of its landmark initiatives, such as the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, India has been able to address the issues of access and retention by providing a primary school in every habitation of the country and the mid-day meal, which is the largest such programme in the world. As a result, from an enrolment of 72% in 2002 (when 59 million children, out of 220 million in the 6-14 age group, were out of school) today over 99% of children are enrolled in schools. Attendance in schools has gone up and retention till Class 8 has risen from 42% in 2002 to around 80% in recent times. But JP Naik's elusive triangle is borne out by the fact that the third vertex of this triangle €“ namely, the quality of education €“ has simply been unattainable.

The World Bank estimates that by 2021, India will have 372 million children in the 0-14 age group and 367 million in the 15-29 youth group. The crisis that looms as a result of poor education, therefore, is potentially catastrophic.

Tinkering with existing systems and incremental improvements are just not going to work. This crisis in education is a national emergency; we have been calling it that for years. It is now or never for implementing radical reforms.

Central to this are radical reforms in teacher education. The Justice Verma Commission report of 2014 was an important beginning. But from there, the curve cannot get flattened by vested interests, political and venal machinations. How well and quickly we can reform our teacher education, implement high quality four-year integrated teacher education programmes and create institutions of excellence in teacher education will determine the fate of 370 million children who will in a few years join India's adult population. In the process, we must rid the country of the sham of the 16,000 meaningless teacher education colleges and bring teacher education as an institution within the university, rather than let it remain in anaemic and inadequately resourced colleges. Ultimately, all this boils down to political will and commitment to good governance.

In a vast and complex country where there are over 1.5 million schools across 6,000 blocks, it is a fact that teachers receive very little attention, guidance or motivation from their supervisors. The academic support system for teachers is virtually non-existent. Changes in the systems, structures and processes are a crying need, but a strong teacher education system can provide competent people to support teachers on the ground. Obviously, many parallel strands of radical reform in our education system need to be addressed simultaneously. But the most critical part is teacher education.

Finally, there is another crucial piece in this complex puzzle. Our teachers come into the profession after studying in a very weak and dysfunctional undergraduate system. If our teachers were to be truly competent in their subjects, that would be possible only if our BSc and BA degrees provide depth and breadth in their chosen discipline. We cannot discuss quality in school education without recognising the abysmal quality of our undergraduate programmes.

The Kothari Commission report of 1966, the National Education Policy, 1986, and the National Curriculum Framework, 2005, are milestones in India's quest for quality. But the next National Education Policy may well prove to be one of the most important documents.

If it shows the way through radical suggestions to transform teacher education, the need to invest in teacher preparation and identify the accompanying systemic and structural reforms, it will go a long way to strengthen India's public education system. Over 50% of India's children are dependent on government schools, and it is only when they receive equitable quality of education can we hope to progress towards the ideals enshrined in our Constitution.

(The writer is Chief Operating Officer, Azim Premji University)

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